Why This Play?:
Half my life ago, I was a teenager on her first trip to Europe. My English teachers took a group of students on a two-week literary tour of Ireland and the UK. In many ways (e.g. my pop culture preferences), I’ve been trying for 17 years to chase the magic of that trip. On the southern border of Scotland, I purchased a huge, pale pink, perfect cashmere sweater. Ever since, it’s served as my personal security blanket, and is one of my prized (if battered) possessions. It’s warm, filled with great memories, and always there when I need it.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is my literary equivalent of that sweater. It’s the first Shakespeare I ever read, back in my dreamy, very bookish twelve-year-old days (eh, what's changed?). The play that always makes me still kinda-sorta believe in fairies. It’s the last play in which I performed…although hopefully that is not forever the case. This is the play I read in the winter when I’m dreaming of warm days and long hikes in the woods. It’s not necessarily my favorite in all of Shakespeare, but reading or seeing it is always like greeting an old friend.
So What Happens?:
In Athens, Duke Theseus is readying to marry the Amazonian Hippolyta. Their plans are interrupted by Egeus, who drags in his daughter Hermia. He wants Hermia to marry Demetrius, but she’s in love with Lysander. The lovers plead their case, but Theseus (and the law) is firm: Hermia must marry according to dad’s wishes, or she can become a nun. He’ll give her a few days to decide, but Hermia and Lysander plot to meet in the woods that night to elope outside of Athens. But first, they relay the plot to Hermia’s best pal, Helena. Helena’s been mooning over Demetrius for a while now. She gets the bright idea to tell Demetrius of Hermia’s plan to run off, in attempt to gain any kind of favor with him.
In addition to that, a group of laborers band together to determine which play they will perform to honor Theseus’s wedding. They settle on the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. The local weaver, Bottom, is most gung-ho about the show, and would love to take on every single role. Peter Quince is in charge, however, and assigns all the roles to others, saving the lead of Pyramus for the uninhibited Bottom. They all agree to meet in the woods to rehearse later.
A couple of fairies are hanging out deep in the woods, among them the impish Puck. Oberon, the fairy king, and Titania, his queen, argue over the custody of a little boy (throwing in some infidelity accusations for good measure). Oberon decides to revenge himself on Titania through a humiliating enchantment, so he has Puck retrieve a magic flower that can cause a person to fall in love with the first living creature he/she sees. While waiting on Puck to return with the flower, he observes a disdainful Demetrius in the woods in pursuit of Hermia, with smitten Helena trailing him. As Titania sleeps, Oberon administers the flower’s potion to her eyes in hope that she’ll awake in love with something “vile.” He sends Puck off to put the love flower’s juice on Demetrius’s eyes. Hermia and Lysander are also wandering the wood on their way to elope, but they get lost and decide to go to sleep. Puck follows Oberon’s instructions, but puts the potion on Lysander rather than Demetrius (those Athenians look so alike!). Demetrius runs through the scene, and Helena falls behind in chasing him – just in time for Lysander to spy her as he wakes. He’s instantly in love with Helena, who believes he is cruelly teasing her with his newly professed affection. Helena runs after Demetrius with Lysander following. Hermia awakes all alone, frightened to see her lover is gone.
Now the group of laborers is in the woods, and they find a lovely glen in which to rehearse their play. They argue over some of the plot points, worrying that ladies will find offence (or fear) in the content. Puck watches their work, and takes the first opportunity to cause some mischief. When Bottom is alone, Puck transforms his head into that of an ass.
Bottom emerges for his cue, and all his friends understandably freak out over his condition and run away. The unknowing Bottom is unnerved, but then just thinks they are teasing him, so he sings to pass the time. Lo and behold, all the commotion awakens a nearby sleeping Titania, and she instantly is enamored of the monstrous Bottom.
Delighted with all the mayhem, Puck flies off to report all the details to his master. Oberon is pleased with his work, until he witnesses a distressed Hermia scolding besotted Demetrius (she thinks he’s hurt the missing Lysander). Oberon chides Puck for enchanting the wrong Athenian dude, then applies the potion to Demetrius’s eyes once he falls asleep. Helena, meanwhile, is still being pursued by Lysander. Demetrius wakens to also fall for Helena, then Hermia finds them, and it all goes to chaos. Helena thinks that Hermia is in league with the men to trick and humiliate her (despite their years of friendship), and Hermia is convinced that her friend seduced her boyfriend. The men run off to fight each other, and the ladies are befuddled. Oberon orders Puck to right the situation, and Puck leads Lysander and Demetrius around in a fog, impersonating their voices to keep them away from one another. Exhausted, the two lovers fall asleep, and Puck administers some sort of antidote love flower to Lysander to remove the previous spell.
Bottom is sitting in the lap of woodland luxury, being fawned upon by Titania and all her fairy train. Oberon has won back the boy from Titania, and he’s starting to pity her enchanted state. He removes the spell and makes amends with his queen (anything can be mended with a little dancing!). Theseus is out in the woods and stumbles upon the four lovers. They awake, and everything’s a-ok as they are now in two neat couples (Hermia & Lysander back together, and Helena now accepts Demetrius’s love since he’s proclaiming it in front of the Duke). Theseus invites the couples to get married along with him later that day – wooo! Triple wedding! Bottom is relieved of his ass head, and believes it to all be a fantastic dream. He finds his friends, and everyone is relieved that he’s safe and that the show can go on!
Huzzah, everyone’s now married! But, they have time to kill between supper and bedtime, so Theseus surveys a list of possible entertainments. He chooses Pyramus and Thisbe for its paradoxical nature (is it a comedy or a tragedy?), and we have ourselves a play-within-a-play. The laborers give it their best go, but it’s a hilarious disaster. A prologue that runs into mish-mash lays the scene of two lovers parted by family and a literal wall. The actor portraying Moonlight via lantern is grouchy with his heckling audience. When “Pyramus” believes his love to be dead from a lion attack, the “Lion” is quick to assure his viewers that he is really the man Snug the joiner just pretending to be a beast. “Thisbe” then commits suicide, but to the audience’s laughter rather than tears. The play ends, and Theseus calls for dancing, then bed. The fairies bless the marriage house, and Puck appears to make a little speech to the audience: we hope you have been entertained, but if not – then this was all a dream.
Check This Out:
I think this is the first time I didn’t attempt to watch a performance along with my reading. I skived off in this case as I’ve seen a live performance (Shakespeare in the Park deal during a thunderstorm!), performed as Helena, and seen the 1999 Michael Hoffman film several times (it’s just so, so pretty). But I promise I watched scenes from the 1968 version on YouTube (Judi Dench is gorgeous), and I listened to Mendelssohn the entire time I was writing this.
As mentioned, I performed in this play in my UCLA days. It was tons of fun. The Athenian lovers and royalty were dressed in black and white 1940s inspired garb, and the mechanicals were of the same era, but in brown tones. The fairy realm was styled in wild, modern Technicolor. By the end of the show, the lovers (and Bottom, I believe) took on elements of color into their Act 5 garb to show how much their “dream” in the woods affected them. Plus, John Morris (who voiced Andy in all the Toy Story movies) played Puck, and we used to make him say “All right, Pizza Planet!” at rehearsals all the time. This was back in the days of disposable cameras, and I sadly have no photos of that production, so I give you this:
Thoughts and Themes:
I am a big fan of re-reading. When a particular book or play resonates with me, I relish coming back to it a few years later to see if it’s just as a remembered it, or if I learn something new from it or identify with a different character than I did before. For example, my favorite novel when I was eleven, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, made my heart ache in entirely new ways once I became a mother (Frannie, don’t you realize Katie is YOU?!?!). This is also one of the major reasons Shakespeare holds such charms for me. No matter how many times I’ve read it or seen one of his plays, there’s always some new interpretation, something new to discover. That pink cashmere sweater hasn’t changed a bit, but I can still find new ways to wear it, you know?
My previous interactions with Midsummer have tended to focus more on the lovers, and the “rude mechanicals” with their play-within-a-play. Past dreadpiratemama has identified with Helena’s unrequited love, and I have long dissected the jokes of the Pyramus and Thisbe play. [I’ve always loved that scene, and I firmly believe that humor is, within the whole canon, some of the most translatable of the text to a modern day audience.] For me, the fairies were always very pretty, poetic plot devices rather than characters with whom I connected. But something made me pay closer attention to them this time around.
A new focus for me during this reading is the power struggle between the queen and king of fairies, and the parallel of the nuptials for Theseus and Hippolyta. There is a very similar dynamic in the two relationships of the men having to struggle to win power over their ladies. Yes, it’s a very old and obvious theme, but not one that ever really resonated in my mind before. We know Theseus wooed and won Hippolyta in literal battle. We see Oberon and Titania fight for the custody of a little boy. Quite frankly, Titania has an excellent reason to keep him (his mother served her and died in childbirth); she even gives a beautiful and passionate speech about it. We never learn if Oberon has a reason other than “because I want him”. There’s anger, hurt, even mentions of past betrayal in the fairies’ marriage, whereas with the royals we see no sign of any grudge held over the battles they previously fought. Although (ha!) perhaps that’s because they’re still new to their relationship…who knows how many eons the fairies have been together? Either way, this is a tale of the men resorting to fighting and trickery to bend their lovers to their will. Hell, you even have Egeus and Demetrius trying to exert their will over Hermia’s future and wishes. What the ladies want just plain doesn’t matter.
Lo and behold, gender politics in my comfy old play that I had always just considered to be a fun woodland romp that commented excellently on the mechanics of staging a play! Mind blown. Instantly brought to mind a lovely Avett Brothers song, Kick Drum Heart:
There’s nothing like finding gold
Within the rocks hard and cold
So surprised to find more
Always surprised to find more
Just when you thought you couldn’t learn anything new…